Television’s vast wasteland: Getting better

Here and Now

This story was originally covered by PRI’s Here and Now. For more, listen to the audio above.

Before the “Jersey Shore,” before “Celebrity Apprentice,” FCC chair Newton Minow called television a “vast wasteland.” In his first speech as FCC chair, he told a group of broadcasters:

When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you’ll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.”

The speech angered many in the television community; the creators of “Gilligan’s Island” named the sinking ship the SS Minnow after him. The phrase “vast wasteland” came to characterize the speech and has been widely used since. But Minow wasn’t as interested in that term. He told Here and Now, “I was much more interested in two other words, ‘public interest.'”

In some ways, Minow believes that the television landscape has actually gotten better in the past half century. “We have a much wider ability to find what we want,” he says. People interested in the news have more places to get the news. People with children can find more programming for children.

In spite of his status as an icon of the anti-television crowd, Minow says, “I’m a television junky. I watch a lot of television, and I listen to a lot of radio, particularly public radio. He was once the chair of PBS, and is currently calling for more funding for public media.

“I felt the government’s role should be to expand choice and let the viewers decide,” he says. And he still believes that today.

When asked what he watches, he told Here and Now, “My favorite program is CBS ‘Sunday Morning,’ I watch ‘Masterpiece Theater.’ And I confess it, I’m a big fan of the ‘Sopranos.'” As for the “Jersey Shore,” though, he says “I haven’t seen it.”


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